Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Winds of Change Blowing in Iran?

I lifted the above picture from Iranian.com a site most Iranians here in the U.S. who are concerned with Iran will visit fairly regularly as it tends to cover events in Iran more comprehensively than the U.S. news sources do. The photos from the recent demonstration by women in Iran are captivating for someone like myself who has followed the country with some interest. The NY Times has also reported on the demonstration depicted above with Sunday's Hundreds of Women Protest Sex Discrimination in Iran [you can also get an NPR report on the demonstrations and developments in Iran.]

The Iranian women that I personally know to a woman have college degrees, and otherwise are working on a masters, have a masters and are professionals or working on their PhDs, or otherwise have their PhDs (this includes my wife). I've come to appreciate, especially in light of some of the limited research I've done to support this blog entry, that my view of Iranian women is actually somewhat skewed. A chart breaking down the education levels found in various countries of the Middle East and some countries of Africa is found at the Population Reference Bureau. This chart complicates my personal perception of Iran as I was under the impression that Iranian women were the most well-educated females in the Middle East; clearly that's not the case. But something's brewing there to cause these women to protest like this, and protest is not something that's looked upon kindly by those in power in Iran. From the Times article one get an idea of some of what these women are protesting about:

Iranian law stipulates that the value of a woman's life or her testimony in court is half that of a man's. Iranian men can marry up to four wives and have the right to divorce any of them at will. A woman inherits half of the share of her brothers and needs her husband's permission to work outside the home or to leave the country. Women are rarely promoted to high positions, and despite their relatively high levels of education, they make up only 14 percent of government employees.

It should be pointed out that polygamy is not common in Iran, and for what there is the first wife is supposed to give her approval for any additional marriages. That said, the Times piece touches on only some of the problems women in Iran have to deal with, there are many more. Something not mentioned here, and which I've always had a hard time with, is temporary marriage [or mut'a], a religious "right" only found in Shia Islam. I quote the following from Nikki Kiddie's Modern Iran: Roots and Results of Revolution:

In this form of marriage, early outlawed by Sunnis, the duration of the marriage is stated in the contract --- anywhere from minutes to ninety-nine years. As in all marriages, the husband gives a sum of money. The temporary wife or wives could be in addition to the four maximum regular wives. Temporary marriage flourished in Shi'i pilgrimage centers where mollas [blogger's note: Shia clerics] might be intermediaries; both Sunnis and Westerners often characterized the custom as "legalized prostitution." It has, however, other uses, and even when of short duration it has the advantage that the children are legitimate and the temporary wives, even when professionals, are not breaking any law and are less stigmatized than prostitutes. (pages 32 - 33)

Essentially, on the whole, it lets men have lovers and through this device the lover is protected if she has a child with her being able to give the child the father's name (and possibly give the child up to the father as he has the right to custody of the child up to the age of 8), and she's not considered a loose woman in the context of her legal sexual liaison. So the men get the freedom and the women get the protections, which on the whole hardly seems like a right that treats both parties fairly. Moreover, if a married man engages in a mut'a that's acceptable and even legal (though technically the first wife would still have to approve, a restriction not always adhered to), but the same privilege is not extended to his wife, as of course isn't the right of polygamy. What I find interesting is that I've heard Iranian men (studying here, though very likely to stay in the U.S. or somewhere else in the west) defend the practice and not a single Iranian women has anything good to say about it.

You get a sense of Iranian women's rebelliousness from, of all things, their dress. Women's dress is also restricted, as is the case in Islamic societies throughout the world, but Iranian women seem to be in the forefront of subtly going against Islamic restrictions by virtue of how they wear their head scarf and the outer garment called the mantou (the women in this picture are wearing mantous over their jeans) or the hejab. The hejab is a traditional garment worn by many Muslim women, while the mantou is more specifically associated with Iranian women. Along with wearing a scarf to show as much hair as possible (the intention of the scarf is to hide a woman's hair, not to act as a focusing device on her hair, which is more how Iranian women have come to use the scarf), Iranian women, especially in the cities, make fashion statements with their mantous. All of these fashion statements come with some risk as there are religious police (the monkarat, often working in league with the basij) who roam the streets looking for offenders of the faith, and women can be picked up and taken to jail for improper dress (this includes too much makeup, showing too much hair, a mantous that's considered improper, etc.) --- how active they are seems to depend on the mood at the time of the conservatives actually running things in the country.

However you cut it Iranian women, and Islamic women as a whole be they Sunni or Shia, are not equal to men. I'm not surprised that it's Iranian women who are fighting for the equality as they have gone through things within their own society and how they're treated by it that other women in the region have not, with the Islamic Revolution topping the list, and they do have a strong sense of themselves. How they measure up against their other well-educated sisters in the region I don't know, but they're the ones making the noise. (For those not in the know, Iranian women are not Arab, they're ethnically separate and consider themselves Iranian or Persian, though Iran itself does have a fairly sizeable non-Persian population, to include Arabs, specifically in the south of the country ---the population ethnic make up, from Wikipedia - Demographics of Iran is as follows: Persians 51%, Azeri Turks 24%, Gilaki and Mazandarani 8%, Kurds 7%, Arabs 3%, Lur 2%, Baloch 2%, Turkmen Turks 2%, other 1% .) These demonstrations are likely tied to the soon to be held elections (in 3 days, on June 17th) and if the women can make any traction on their issues there's hope that others with legitimate complaints about freedom in Iran will be emboldened to push for change.

How much the country does change over the coming years is unclear, though that there's pressure to change is not in doubt. It's very likely that Rafsanjani, the president from 8 years ago, will be re-elected in 3 days (he is not especially popular in his own right, vice more being perceived as the best candidate out of an otherwise untenable group --- whether he'd be actually good for the country is an open question.) He, as are other candidates, is making strong appeals to the 75% of the population that's under the age of 35. It is the same younger generation that came out in record numbers to vote in the moderates and Khatami, the outgoing president, and then were let down in the ensuing years --- whether they'll see themselves having as much of a stake in this election is not entirely certain [Will Iranians vote? ], though the indications are not good at this point [there are many, to include the deposed Shah's son, Reza Pahlavi , exhorting voters not to come to the polls--- I would expect, and frankly hope, that Pahlavi involvement in this matter would increase voter turn out, for as much as he may be paid any attention in Iran.]

It's a combination of the relatively well-educated population, its extraordinary young age, and a yearning for something more that we're seeing expressed by the women of Iran, and that will help to move the country into change. The U.S. needs to be in a position to work to help change in Iran without interfering in the country. Iranians by and large like the U.S., and with making the right moves at the right time we can possibly bring our countries to a more reasonable relationship than has existed for the past 26 years. Having Iran as a friendly nation vice an enemy is better for both nations, but whether this administration and Iran are each flexible enough for the sort of changes that will need to happen for this to occur remains to be seen.

The women's demonstration in Tehran may well be a harbinger of things to come in the following months. I expect events in Iran to be very interesting in the next six months to a year, and I hope that the players that need to be prepared to facilitate the best outcomes, both here and in Iran, are ready for what may come --- if history plays out as it has in the past that's likely a bit much to expect.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Jeez, it only took 30 years for the Women of Iran to stand up and push back! I remember when the national dress code was first mandated thinking that no one with a brain in their head was going to stand for a bunch of dirty minded old mullahs telling them what to wear. Every decade has has been scarier and scarier.

8:10 PM  
Anonymous Josh Canel said...

I've been saying for a couple of years now that Iran will be a viable democracy long before Iraq, and these sort of demonstrations push me further in this prediction.

On another note, this reminds me of a great Iranian movie I've seen (I've seen two, and sadly, I can't remember the title of either of them). Anyway, it focused on a young wife (arranged marriage, of course) and the way she handled being abandoned by her husband soon after having a child. It sounds like a recipe for a thoroughly heartbreaking film, but it was actually the opposite. The girl was portrayed with such plucky determination, you couldn't help but cheer and hope that she could find a place where her life would be honored.

If this spare plot synopsis sounds familiar to you, I'd appreciate learning the title, so I could see the film again.

8:28 PM  
Blogger she falters to rise said...

Thank you for this post. There are so many things that I just don't know about (alhtough they are important so I should learn about them), and the links were helpful. Lots of food for thought...

8:25 AM  
Blogger James said...

Atmikha: Well, in a sense 30 years isn't that long a time. I think it's taken them this long to figure out what's not going to change unless they do something. Hopefully they set a trend and indeed do force change.

Josh: There are many excellent Iranian movies (a few bad ones, but mostly excellent ones) and I'd have to say that movies are a very strong Iranian export, though many of the directors and their movies are banned in the country itself. That said, the plot description you have here doesn't ring a bell, I'll have to talk to Feri about this. I haven't seen it, or don't think I have. I'll get back to you. I also agree with you that I feel Iran will come along further than Iraq, mostly because in Iran it's Iranians forcing the change and unlike what we seem to think in Iraq substantive change doesn't happen in the matter of a few years and an invasion.

SFTR: I'm VERY glad that you were able to take something from this. Iran is indeed a fascinating country, and I think a lot of important things are going on there that we don't appreciate here. In fact here we're by and large relatively ignorant of what's going there, and are too inclined to simplistic categorizations about the country under Bush's "axis of evil" designation. I'm not say Iran is without its problems, but there's more good than their some would let on to, and we should do a much better job of trying to work together than I think, to this point, we have.

10:59 AM  
Blogger Dr. Charles said...

a very interesting post, and although i'm certainly not an expert in such things, i believe that a women's rights movement is the only thing that can reform islamic society for the better. our bombs won't do it. almost every successful movement has swelled up from 'the people' within, and i admire these iranian women's budding courage to challenge their devaluation.

3:13 PM  
Blogger James said...

Dr. Charles --- A woman's right movement is necessary, how much traction it'll have remains to be seen though it does seem to be moving forward in Iran. Having Shirin Ebadi receive the 2003 Nobel Peace Prize surely was a significant contribution to women's empowerment in Iran, though how far an essentially paternalistic society and theocracy will allow this to go remains to be seen. I believe the chances for women are greater if there's a synergy with other forces for change in the country, and I think we'll see this unfold to some degree in the next year.

My hope is that for whatever may happen in the coming months that we don't screw it up on this end by stonewalling, and that the Iranians are able to be flexible on their end. History has not shown mutual flexibility between the two countries, at the right time, to be much in the cards.

4:01 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for another wonderful post. Appreciation for other cultures is only possible when one learns more, but with the negative images and subtle steering of public opinion that usually goes on in the USA's media, it sometimes seems too hard to make the effort. You've brought up wonderful points and great links for us, and I appreciate the insights from your commenters, also. thankyouthankyouthankyou, all.

8:00 AM  
Blogger James said...

Waxwing, Thank you for coming by, and my being able to connect with people such as yourself is one of the main reasons I do this; I'm very happy to see it's appreciated.

7:49 PM  
Anonymous Ghazal said...

josh canel,
The movie you are describing sounds a lot like "I am Taraneh, 15".

2:21 PM  
Anonymous Josh Canel said...

ghazal -

Thank you. James sent an e-mail letting me know that someone had responded to my question. I then check it out on imdb.com and the plot summary posted there makes it clear that you got the title right. I loved that movie.

5:32 PM  

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